Horror Bites - Keeping the Faith [Part 2]

THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)


Okay... time for a little detour with The Ninth Configuration. The links with The Exorcist are pretty tenuous at best in terms of character and plot, and what we actually have is a story set in a psychiatric hospital. One of the patients just happens to be the astronaut Regan spoke to at her mother's party before the whole pea soup episode. But still, just as a weird offshoot from those films it has to be visited. Some of the themes do cross over in a few places, and there is some exploration of the nature of faith and a lot of discussion about the strength of the human spirit. Which I suppose makes sense as William Peter Blatty directed this from an adaptation of his own book as he'd do later with Legion and The Exorcist III.

You'd probably be expecting something pretty downbeat from this initial synopsis, and in parts this is certainly the case. Issues such as insanity, split personalities and mental breakdowns are covered as things progress in what is part mystery plot and part character study. But this is only part of the story, and it's up against another altogether less serious look at some of the odd personalities currently being held for treatment. How much of this works for you will depend on your need for a consistent narrative on top of the underlying themes, and personally it doesn't quite come together as a whole despite some interesting conclusions being drawn in the final act.

The existence of true human goodness and whether this can be attributed to some sort of divine purpose is the central idea being explored. It's something being considered in the story by some rather unstable personalities. Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives at a repurposed castle being used by the military to treat former servicemen who have been committed for having one kind of mental problem or another. Working with Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders) he meets the various eccentrics inhabiting the facility including Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) who suffered a breakdown before his big day -- a lunar launch.


It's a pretty eclectic cast which includes small parts played by the likes of Robert Loggia and Tom Atkins. Jason Miller also shows up to round off the familiar faces from this series. But while the mixture of characters and the diverse tone are interesting in terms of humour it's definitely at odds with the more dour meditations that are included. This is a story which features a lot of zany costumes (from superheroes to World War II prison guard uniforms) and a lot of lengthy dialogue scenes about how best to cast a Shakespeare play using only dogs. This scattershot temperamentally certainly reflects the states of minds of the principle characters, but it does nothing for the consistency of the narrative. To say nothing of the pacing overall.

Individual moments do each work as their own thing whether it's serious discussion or a total farce, but it feels like too much all at once in places which detracts from the core debate. The dialogue between Kane and Cutshaw should have been the real focus. It's filmed in a weird location, it's full of oddball characters and it's partly funded by Pepsi. I suppose some sense of imbalance was inevitable. However it isn't quite the unstable mixture of elements I'm making this out to be, nor is it a train wreck where Blatty's work on A Shot in the Dark crashes head first into his more sinister stories. It's just all rather uneven. But it's certainly worth checking out just for the strong visuals and all the good performances. Besides, it's a refreshing distraction from the real insanity found in the actual Exorcist sequel... 

(The Exorcist // The Heretic